Last month I emphasized the importance of accuracy and fact checking. Now that you have a few general how-to ideas about fact checking, we'll go a little deeper.
Oh glorious, glorious fact checking. Did you know that technically, fact checking is actually research? Aside from furthering a story, solid research lends huge credibility to work that is dependant on cultural, scientific, historical, technical, and profession-specific details. It keeps lawsuits and scandals of epic proportions at bay.
Accuracy and skilled research also factors critically into a publisher's decision to accept material from new authors. If you can assure a publisher that your facts are ironclad, you get to cut to the front of the line. Plus, research skills open big doors. Fact Checker is one of several entry-level positions at most major magazines, and fact-checking jobs at publications like The New Yorker are considered prestigious. They often lead to higher positions in the publishing community.
When it comes to research, the Internet is one of the easiest, at-your-fingertips ways to find what you're looking for. Just keep this caveat in mind – effective research is as much about common sense as it is your technique and toolbox. Not every "credible" book, journal, database, newspaper, magazine, website, and reference book is ironclad, and your best bet is to approach your sources with a smidge of scepticism, a little vigilance, and a broad selection of reliable backup sources.
So let's get started. Begin with a question and have a seat. Then make a list of every organization likely to supply some kind of answer. Next, try going directly to an organization's website. Start by typing in their web address.
If you're not sure, try guessing. Aside from the common .com ending, there are also a number of other top level domains to try, including .net for networks, .edu for U.S. higher education, .org for other organizations, .mil for U.S. military, .gov for U.S. federal government, .int for international organizations established by treaties, .state.XX.us for U.S. state governments, .biz for businesses, .coop for co-operatives, .name for personal pages, .museum for museums, and .us and .info – both open to anyone. There are more, but that should give you a solid start.
You can also try the search function via one of the following:
- Portals – which offer search, directory, news and other general services and include sites like Yahoo!, AOL, and MSN
- Search Engines – which work by indexing the words on every page in their database (often covering billions of pages) and include sites like Google, Yahoo! Search, MSN Search, and AltaVista
- Directories – which generally classify selected sites (more often than pages) into hierarchical subject categories. These include non-commercial sites like The Librarians' Index to the Internet, Findlaw, Infomine, and other academic directories.
To use a selected search engine, type a phrase into the designated space for phrases. Almost all portals and search engines use phrase searching, i.e. they search for the words you enter adjacent to each other, and exactly in the order submitted. It's helpful to use double quotes to identify your phrase as such, e.g. "turkey recipe," for tips on roasting a turkey. Though most engines will perform searches and return similar results without quotes, they do help ensure more specific results. Another tip – use the most unique word in your phrase first.
To narrow results, add words to the phrase, e.g. "roasted turkey recipe." You can also type in specific questions like, "How do you roast a turkey?" But other than those nifty quotes, don't worry about punctuation. And remember, precise words and precisely worded questions yield more specific results.
If searching for general information, you can also try single words. But the same rules still apply. Be specific, e.g. "Stradivarius" rather than "violin." You can also use a minus to exclude terms, e.g. violin – Stradivarius.
Other sites, for a fee, have databases that offer a wealth of specialized and extremely hard to find, or otherwise classified information. Examples include Westlaw, and LexisNexis, both of which charge monthly subscriber fees, and sites like People-Finder, which offer a variety of plans.
For the most part, effective searches combine a mixture of URL guesses, subject directories and search engines. Not every search engine offers the same thing and none of them come close to indexing the entire Internet. So be patient. If it exists, you can find it.
Jennifer Edelson is a former practicing Minnesota attorney, now regular IN columnst, freelance writer and legal writing professor. Her writing has appeared on all the finest refrigerators in the Twin Cities. Jennifer can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org